Apparently, Annal¨ªa finally believed her brother was dead. And blamed Court for it.
"How can you want to be near me knowing how much I despise you?" That had been her deadened response when he'd told her he was taking her on to Toulouse. After she'd called him a brute, a filthy barbarian, and a lowly Scot, and told him with a steady gaze that she hated him as she'd never known she was capable of hating anything.
She hadn't wanted to leave with him and would've told everyone that she was a prisoner had he not convinced her that if she stayed she'd be getting the people there killed as well as herself.
Now Court glanced back to see her lagging behind again, her expression lost. The horse he'd been able to find for her was not what she was used to, and though he'd dropped her saddlebags at the house matron's feet and said, "Fix these dresses so she can ride more comfortably in them," Annal¨ªa hadn't seemed to notice the changes. It seemed she noticed nothing.
The journey to Toulouse normally would have taken Court only a full day of fast riding. The land grew flatter as they followed the Ari¨¨ge River away from the Pyrenees until it became a table plain dotted only with small hills. An easy jaunt, but he'd been keeping a much slower pace for her, and one day had turned into three.
For those last three days, she hadn't spoken, had hardly eaten, and had not uttered a word but for her only response to Court's every question, "Fot el camp." Go to hell.
She obviously couldn't wait to be rid of Court, and he would oblige her. When he met up with his crew, he'd ride and never look back, but until then he'd taken his responsibility seriously. Each night he had found them a place to stay, some room where he could rebandage her arm as Molyneux had shown him.
The first night when he'd removed her blouse - not her shift, just the blouse - she'd fought him as if he were stripping her, risking a reinjury. "I can do you the way I threatened with the dress," he'd told her. "Or you can let me tend to your arm." Though she was stiff and stared straight ahead, she cooperated. Each night it looked better.
Afterward, while she took the bed, he'd sink into a chair in the room, thinking about their situation, wondering why it pained him more than anything ever had to see her balled up under the covers, shuddering when she silently cried.
Simply taking care of her was so far beyond his realm of experience, it was staggering. Much less that he was caring for a woman who blamed him for her brother's death.
In less than three days under his protection, she'd been marked for death by a fanatical order of assassins and shot. He'd known he was shadowed in life, could bring ruin to those he cared for, but this was ridiculous. Still, a selfish part of him thought, Better than married to Pascal.
Today as they rode, closing in on the posting house, he reasoned that this was not the curse raining down on him. He'd made a decision that affected her badly. Nothing metaphysical or mystical about it. Besides, he didn't care for her - he took care of her, and only temporarily. Just to get her to safety.
He stopped to wait until she caught up with him. She sat very still in the saddle, staring blankly ahead, looking small in her bright dress and wrapper. This couldn't go on any longer. She needed to stay close to him because they weren't out of danger by any means. He reined his horse around to tell her she needed to buck up -
He turned, saw movement from the corner of his eye, and spotted a cross tattoo.
A Rechazado attacked her from the brush.
"You can't just leave me here," Olivia snapped, her face red with fury, her full lips thinned.
She'd demanded he stop at an inn for food - Aleix hadn't been hungry, wouldn't be until he found his sister and got her away from the Scot. Things became clear.
He knew better than to try to reason with her, but still said, "I will return for you, but right now finding Annal¨ªa is my primary concern."
She leaned forward over the table they'd taken, planting her elbows between plates. "Dealing with Annal¨ªa will take longer. Best to complete the bargain with me."
He leaned forward as well, catching her gaze. "Not a chance. That's not the order."
"So you won't honor our deal until you find her?"
"Then obviously I must expedite the search."
He gave her a short, harsh laugh. "I'm going on alone. We're already at least a week behind them."
She crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. "You need me. This MacCarrick is a villain. I am a villain. I know how he'll think."
He had to hear this. "Please, share your wisdom."
"Our leads indicate he's alone with Annal¨ªa. Highlanders are clannish people. He'll be quick to meet up with his men."
"Very good. Any notion of where that will be?"
"They'll have a predetermined meeting place. Somewhere rural where a group like them won't attract so much attention, but close to a large city where they can find ammunition."
His eyes narrowed. "Toulouse?"
"Is the first possibility."
Aleix had suspected she had more information about the Highlanders than she was presenting, and now his suspicion grew. She was cunning, and knowing her, she would deal it out piecemeal, using it as leverage.
Damn it, he'd have to keep her with him. But only until she no longer proved useful. "We've got to ride faster."
She stood and gave him a bored look. "I'm waiting on you."
The assassin dragged Annal¨ªa down with little effort. Court spurred his mount - she wasn't fighting. Why the hell -
His horse's head was wrenched to the side. Court took his eyes from Annal¨ªa to find another Rechazado had snatched the harness and trained a pistol on him. Court stared down at the hollow black barrel, a chilling sight he'd hoped never to see this close again. If it hadn't been a foot away, he would've chanced it - the other was pulling Annal¨ªa into the bushes.
He'd never forget what happened next. She screamed. She screamed, and he didn't care if he got shot. To hell with it. Court kicked out, catching the Rechazado's arm just as the sound distracted him. Luck was with him, and the gun flew to the side. Court dove from the saddle at him.
As they wrestled, the man drew a smaller pistol. They grappled for control.
Before his injuries, Court would've been stronger, but now...now the man could win. And if he did...Court yelled with rage - suddenly felt as strong as he'd been before. A shot rang out.
The man stared up, eyes growing blank, blood steeping his shirt in an even circle from his heart.
Court snagged the other pistol, sprinted for Annal¨ªa, then forced himself to slow, to surprise the one who had her. He looked past the bushes and found a scene he'd never expected - Annal¨ªa standing with the Rechazado unconscious at her feet and a bloody rock by his head.
Most likely one she'd been saving for Court. That's why she hadn't fought. She hadn't wanted to drop it.
Stunned, he watched her kick the man in the gut, then scan the woods, no doubt deciding where to run from Court.
"Annal¨ªa, stay," he ordered, though he was scarcely able to keep the disbelief out of his voice. She turned to him and rolled her eyes, but she didn't run.
When he reached her, he clasped her good arm, "Are you unhurt? Is your arm all right?"
"Did the shot frighten you?"
"No. I saw him tussling with you over the pistol."
He dropped her arm abruptly. "I'm glad you dinna wait around to see if I would live." In truth, he was glad she'd planned to get away, no matter how riled he sounded.
She squinted at him as if she didn't recognize him. "Tell me again why I should care about that outcome?"
He scowled until she asked, "Is he one of Pascal's men?"
"Did I kill him?"
Court saw his chest rise and shook his head. When she bent to pick up her rock again, he strode over and took it from her hands. "You doona want to kill him." Court would do that. Retribution for touching her.
"I really do."
"No, Anna." When she continued reaching for it, he added, "It'll do things to you. No' worth it."
She informed him crisply, "I - need - that - anyway."
He held it high from her. "For me?"
She nodded without shame.
Clever, brave woman. His brows drew together as he remembered the way he'd reacted to the thought of her being hurt. The way he'd decided a bullet between his eyes was incidental to the need to save her.
He swore under his breath.
"What was that?"
"Nothing. Why don't we wake up this son of a bitch and find out how many more are coming?" Her eyes widened, and he could tell she hadn't thought about that prospect. She looked alive for the first time in days. He heaved the rock away, then bent down to slap the man, but whipped his head back around. "Annal¨ªa, doona think of hitting me again."
"Two with one stone," she said waspishly.
"Be smart. They'll keep coming. You must prefer me over them?"
"I prefer none of you."
"They will no' kill you at first."
Her face paled, and she finally said, "Very well."
He recognized the man before him. He was called Ruiz the Scarred. Court only remembered him because the moniker fit so well. When the assassin roused, he spit blood.
Court had always been heartless in battle, emotionless with the enemy. Now he felt rage building once more, making him hide his clenched fists from Annal¨ªa. This was a man who wanted to murder a defenseless woman. Once he let go of that fury, she'd never look at him the same. "Anna, go see if you can find the horses."
"No, I want to stay. I must ask him about Aleix."
"I promise you this is no' anything you want to see." She hesitated. "Go now." His tone was lethal. "And if you try to leave, I swear to God you will regret it."
She regarded him with a marked fear that he hated seeing, then hurried away. He faced Ruiz. "How many more?"
"Infinite numbers until you are both dead. The way of the Rechazados."
"Did you come from the group at the border?"
He said nothing, so Court raised the pistol and hammered the handle down on the man's skull. He choked back a sound of pain. "W-We came through the main pass to France. We know nothing of the others."
"Why her? She's only tried to return to him."
"A moment of anger. He's since tried to turn us from her...."
"But your order never has." Court had heard that one had better think through an assassination command with them because once set on a path, no force could move them from it.
"Never." He sneered. "I wonder if she knows you're the reason Pascal had her brother?"
Court put all his weight into it when he punched the side of his head.
He needed to focus. When a Rechazado got talkative, he doubtless was stalling until he could find a way to kill you. His giving you information meant nothing if he made sure you'd never live to use it.
But Annal¨ªa had to suspect him of it - if the fool hadn't attacked..."Wait, you said 'had her brother.'"
"He escaped." Ruiz smiled and flashed bloody teeth. "He knows you have his sister. He's coming to kill you if we don't get you first. Mark your days."
Court was almost so wrapped up in what he'd learned that he forgot that the more talking this one did, the closer he was to dying. Almost.
When Ruiz's fingers eased down his leg to the knife strapped to his calf, and he drew, Court shot him.
The report brought Annal¨ªa running. She glanced from the body to him, her face drawn.
What he wouldn't have given to know her thoughts just then. "Did the horses bolt?"
"Yes, but I've coaxed mine back and tethered her," she answered absently. "Yours is down the hill by the stream."
He nodded. "We need to get these two farther off the road."
Strangely calm considering the circumstances, she stood watch until he'd dragged the two deeper into the woods. Afterward, he collected her horse, then started toward the stream for his. She followed him, and even sank down on her calves just beside him while he took advantage of the cool water to wash off.
"Would you believe me if I told you news of your brother?" He stood and and helped her up. "Would you trust what I said?"
"Y-You said not to trust you." A tear slid down her cheek. Damn it, why did his chest hurt all the time?
"I'll tell you the truth."
She took a wavering breath, then finally said, "MacCarrick, does he still have my brother?"
Of its own accord his hand went to her cheek and brushed the tear there. "No, no' anymore."